Low-budget Rays losing ground

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:25 PM ET

TORONTO - Over the last four or five years, nobody has ever questioned the quality of the Tampa Bay Raysí talent and development program. But sustainability? Thatís another question altogether.

The Blue Jays are headed to St. Petersburg for a three-game series and, as usual, they will be in for a tough battle. Since the start of the 2007 season, the Jays have a 31-49 record against Tampa Bay and thatís probably an accurate barometer of where the two franchises stand.

But while the Jays continue to build for the future, banking upon a fertile farm system and healthy revenues as the team becomes more competitive to the point of contention, the Raysí limited resources all but guarantee their ceiling always will be limited.

Not even a surprise trip to the World Series three years ago and another playoff appearance last season has moved the attendance dial at Tropicana Field. They stand 13th of 14 teams in the American League in attendance and have, of necessity, pared back their payroll from $70 million US in 2010 to about $40 million this season.

Even at that level, they are constantly seeking payroll relief with an eye to the future. Thatís one of the reasons why B.J. Upton was on the market leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline. The fact that he remains a Ray today isnít the end of that story, either. Among Tampa Bay players, he receives the second-highest 2011 salary at $4.825 million and will be expecting an arbitration raise next season, before becoming a free agent in 2013.

Those economic realities are reflected in results. Tampa Bay has an outstanding farm system but even by churning out players such as Desmond Jennings, who is making an impact in his early days in the big leagues, it is difficult to maintain consistency with so much youth. The good ones quickly outstrip the teamís ability to pay them, and are gone.

The Rays made an early run at the AL East division-leading Yankees and Red Sox and reached a season high of 10 games over .500 July 7. Since then, they have lost 12 of 19 and now have the fourth-place Jays nipping at their heels.

Pitching remains Tampa Bayís strength, but the Rays have not recovered from the loss of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, both of whom left as free agents last year, as well as the trade of shortstop Jason Bartlett. As a result, they sit in the low-middle of the league in most significant offensive categories.

Overall, Tampa Bayís pitching has kept the team competitive but in this recent 19-game slide, James Shields, one of the pitching stars early in the season, has faltered, losing five of his last six games. During that span, his ERA has drifted upwards from 2.29 in late June to 3.03 today.

It has also been a tough season for Evan Longoria, who has battled a nagging foot injury much of the season. Earlier this month, he was showing signs of offensive recovery but in the last eight games, he is 3-for-25 with a homer and just four RBIs.


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